Tailed Bacteriophages: The Order Caudovirales

Adv Virus Res. 1998;51:135-201. doi: 10.1016/s0065-3527(08)60785-x.


Tailed bacteriophages have a common origin and constitute an order with three families, named Caudovirales. Their structured tail is unique. Tailed phages share a series of high-level taxonomic properties and show many facultative features that are unique or rare in viruses, for example, tail appendages and unusual bases. They share with other viruses, especially herpesviruses, elements of morphogenesis and life-style that are attributed to convergent evolution. Tailed phages present three types of lysogeny, exemplified by phages lambda, Mu, and P1. Lysogeny appears as a secondary property acquired by horizontal gene transfer. Amino acid sequence alignments (notably of DNA polymerases, integrases, and peptidoglycan hydrolases) indicate frequent events of horizontal gene transfer in tailed phages. Common capsid and tail proteins have not been detected. Tailed phages possibly evolved from small protein shells with a few genes sufficient for some basal level of productive infection. This early stage can no longer be traced. At one point, this precursor phage became perfected. Some of its features were perfect enough to be transmitted until today. It is tempting to list major present-day properties of tailed phages in the past tense to construct a tentative history of these viruses: 1. Tailed phages originated in the early Precambrian, long before eukaryotes and their viruses. 2. The ur-tailed phage, already a quite evolved virus, had an icosahedral head of about 60 nm in diameter and a long non-contractile tail with sixfold symmetry. The capsid contained a single molecule of dsDNA of about 50 kb, and the tail was probably provided with a fixation apparatus. Head and tail were held together by a connector. a. The particle contained no lipids, was heavier than most viruses to come, and had a high DNA content proportional to its capsid size (about 50%). b. Most of its DNA coded for structural proteins. Morphopoietic genes clustered at one end of the genome, with head genes preceding tail genes. Lytic enzymes were probably coded for. A part of the phage genome was nonessential and possibly bacterial. Were tailed phages general transductants since the beginning? 3. The virus infected its host from the outside, injecting its DNA. Replication involved transcription in several waves and formation of DNA concatemers. Novel phages were released by burst of the infected cell after lysis of host membranes by a peptidoglycan hydrolase (and a holin?). a. Capsids were assembled from a starting point, the connector, and around a scaffold. They underwent an elaborate maturation process involving protein cleavage and capsid expansion. Heads and tails were assembled separately and joined later. b. The DNA was cut to size and entered preformed capsids by a headful mechanism. 4. Subsequently, tailed phages diversified by: a. Evolving contractile or short tails and elongated heads. b. Exchanging genes or gene fragments with other phages. c. Becoming temperate by acquiring an integrase-excisionase complex, plasmid parts, or transposons. d. Acquiring DNA and RNA polymerases and other replication enzymes. e. Exchanging lysin genes with their hosts. f. Losing the ability to form concatemers as a consequence of acquiring transposons (Mu) or proteinprimed DNA polymerases (phi 29). Present-day tailed phages appear as chimeras, but their monophyletic origin is still inscribed in their morphology, genome structure, and replication strategy. It may also be evident in the three-dimensional structure of capsid and tail proteins. It is unlikely to be found in amino acid sequences because constitutive proteins must be so old that relationships were obliterated and most or all replication-, lysogeny-, and lysis-related proteins appear to have been borrowed. However, the sum of tailed phage properties and behavior is so characteristic that tailed phages cannot be confused with other viruses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Caudovirales* / genetics
  • Caudovirales* / physiology
  • Caudovirales* / ultrastructure
  • DNA Replication
  • Genome, Viral
  • Virus Assembly